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William Cullen Bryant's "The Yellow Violet"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Cullen Bryant

Introduction and Text of "The Yellow Violet"

William Cullen Bryant’s delightful poem,"The Yellow Violet," is composed of eight rimed quatrains. Each quatrain adds a field to the portrait of spring that the speaker is celebrating in his song of beauty, modesty, alertness, and humility.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Yellow Violet

When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.

Reading of "The Yellow Violet"

Commentary

The speaker in this poem celebrates the beginning of spring as he closely observes a yellow violet. He also appends his philosophical observation regarding modesty and humility.

First Quatrain: Opening Strains

When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

The first quatrain finds the speaker establishing the period of time that the "yellow violet's modest bell" makes its appearance in the woods. At the same time, the blue-bird may be heard in all its glory, and all the buds on the trees are beginning to appear. The small bright yellow flower then makes its appearance, "peep[ing]" out from the leaves that had fallen two seasons before.

Second Quatrain: Addressing the Flower

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

In the second quatrain, the speaker speaks to the flower, telling it about his fondness of encountering it and being able to detect it because of its "faint perfume" which is the only fragrance in "the virgin air." Thrillingly, all this happens even before the fields, which are still brown from winter’s stay, have been ploughed and made ready to sprout their growing produce.

Third Quatrain: The Person of Spring

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

In the third quatrain, the speaker compliments the flower for being the earliest to bloom. He personifies spring saying "the hands of Spring / First plant thee in the watery mould."

The speaker then remarks that he has even observed the small blossom, showing its bright head by "snow-bank’s edges cold." The speaker thus suggests that the tiny flower is rugged and dauntless because it is able to endure such harsh weather conditions.

Fourth Quatrain: Obeying the Sun

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

The speaker then focuses on discipline. He dramatically portrays the sun's role in discipling the little flower as the violet's parent. Through personification, the speaker places the sun in the role of a parent instructing and guiding the child to become self-sufficient, strong, and persistent in the face of daunting obstacles.

The little flower through the sun's tough love has come to reflect the same feature of the "parent": its "own bright hue" is "streaked with jet thy glowing lip." The bright color of the flower reflects that of the sun, while at the same time featuring a strip of "jet" on her lip, signifying her individuality and independence.

Fifth Quatrain: A Humble Flower

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Even in spite of the vigor and persistence of this robust little flower, the tiny blossom portrays its modest environment: "Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat, / And earthward bent thy gentle eye." The flower is tiny; it grows low and close to the earth, as it appears to bow its head, not showing its "gentle eye."

It is not likely that anyone casually passing by would even take note of the little flower. Other flowers in comparison would be deemed "loftier," as they "are flaunting nigh." This tiny blossom remains modest and inconspicuous.

Sixth Quatrain: Observing the Humble Flower

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

The sixth quatrain finds the speaker offering further evidence to support his claim that the little flower is modest as he chafes at his own failure to observe it as other blossoms were asserting themselves: "Oft, in the sunless April day, / Thy early smile has stayed my walk; / But midst the gorgeous blooms of May, / I passed thee on thy humble stalk."

The speaker confesses that when it is early spring and easy to see a tiny yellow blossom where no other flowers were showing themselves, he had gladly halted on his walk to take in the "smile" of the yellow violet. But after the "gorgeous blooms of May" had begun displaying their glory, he had neglected the little humble flower.

Seventh Quatrain: Overlooking the Lowly

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

The speaker therefore takes note that human nature tends to overlook the lowly, the humble, and the modest. As they "climb to wealth," the human being becomes full of pride and self-satisfaction, failing to take notice of beauty in humble places. The speaker regrets that he has succumbed to such failure. He exhibits remorse that he "should ape the ways of pride."

Eighth Quatrain: Remembering the Humble

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.

The speaker then promises the tiny yellow violet that he will no longer take the route of pride and obliviousness, but he will remember to observe and pay attention to the humble flower. He will look forward to welcoming,"the modest flower / That made the woods of April bright."

Instead of overlooking again the little flower, he will overlook his pride, keep it in check, and while giving proper attention to the other "gorgeous blooms of May," he will pay proper homage to the little blossom that is always the very first one to presage the beauty of the season of growth.

William Cullen Bryant

Life Sketch of William Cullen Bryant

Most noted for his poem “Thanatopsis,” a study of death, William Cullen Bryant also wrote numerous sonnets focusing on nature. Born in Cummington, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794, Bryant was an early nature lover, and much of his poetry focuses on nature subjects.

Despite the fact that he lived a long life, dying in New York in 1878, his health was weak in infancy. One story has it that as a baby Bryant had a large head; his father who was a physician sought to reduce the size of his son’s head by dunking him in cold water every morning. It is not known if these cold baths actually brought about the desired result.

Bryant entered Williams College at age sixteen and studied there for two years. Later he studied law and became a member of the bar in 1815. He practiced law at Plainfield and at Great Barrington. Despite his high achievement in the courts, his real love was literature, not law.

Bryant’s literary career had begun in his teens. He wrote and published a satirical poem titled “The Embargo” and several other poems when he was only thirteen. He wrote his most widely read poem, “Thanatopsis,” when he was only eighteen.

He moved to New York in 1825 and with a friend founded The New York Review, where he published many of his poems. His longest stint as an editor was at The Evening Post, where he served for over fifty years until his death. In addition to his editorial and literary efforts, Bryant joined in the political discussions of the day, offering clear-headed prose to his repertoire of works.

In 1832, Bryant published his first volume of poems, and in 1852 his collection, The Fountain and Other Poems, appeared. When he was seventy-one years old, he began his translation of the Iliad which he completed in 1869; then he finished the Odyssey in 1871. When he was eighty-two, he wrote and published his strongest work, The Flood of Years.

Another important poem that serves as an excellent example of this poet's style and unique craftsmanship is his sonnet titled "October":

October

Aye, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And sons grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And then my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.

The speaker addresses the month of October, personifying its presence. As in his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” the poet portrays death as something to be admired instead of feared. Bryant’s dedication to his literary career as well as to his homeland could not be emphasized any better than by the poet himself when he declared the following:

We are not without the hope that those who read what we have written, will see in the past, with all its vicissitudes, the promise of a prosperous and honorable future, of concord at home, and peace and respect abroad; and that the same cheerful piety which leads the good man to put his personal trust in a kind Providence, will prompt the good citizen to cherish an equal confidence in regard to the destiny reserved for our beloved country.

Despite the shrill voices of many of today’s poets and political pundits who denigrate their country with their undisciplined art and polemics, Bryant’s hope has well been realized for those who focus on the right places.

Questions & Answers

Question: When was the poem "The Yellow Violet" written? At what time in Bryant’s life was "The Yellow Violet" written?

Answer: "The Yellow Violet" is an early poem, which Bryant wrote before he turned 21 years old age.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes